Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Using the Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice: A Positive Approach for the Helping Professions

The idea that people can resolve serious social and emotional problems by focusing on the strengths in their lives is an elegant concept, but one at odds with many current notions of psychotherapy that focus on what's wrong with people. The strengths perspective is interested in showing how the day-to-day work that most of us do to keep ourselves going, even in the midst of crisis, is the basis for a more effective way of helping people. Furthermore, the strengths perspective suggests that even without the help of trained professionals, many people in deep despair show resilience and actually resolve their problems by using the positive influences of family, community, support networks, religious and spiritual beliefs, and a philosophy of life that not only guides them through moments of deep sorrow but actually enhances and improves their social and emotional lives. According to Dr. Morley Glicken:

While the focus of Using the Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice is to show clinicians how to use the strengths perspective, it is also to suggest that much is to be learned from the amazingly resilient people who navigate the troubled waters of life’s traumas. Many social and emotional problems that currently require a trained mental health professional can be resolved when people use the natural resources in their lives. All too little is known about resilience, but from a strengths point of view, it is the key to understanding how people cope with life difficulties and how they often come out of a crisis stronger and more certain of their goals, desires, and directions in life.

In the strengths perspective, the worker allows the client to involve the helper in a journey of understanding. That journey is defined by a sense of astonishment by the helper that the client would allow him or her to view his or her often-painful inner world. It is a world of hurt and sorrow coupled, to be sure, with a world of heroism, bravery, loving devotion, sensitivity to others, a helping impulse, and the amazing moments in time when even the most hardened and destructive among us reach out to others and act in ways that can only fill us with immense joy at the unpredictability of the human spirit. It is an approach to helping that uses what works for people to dominate the discussion of how those in difficulty can get better. For the depressed client who struggles with the urge to give up, every day must be an act of bravery to bathe, dress, take care of family, work, pay bills, and nurture children, spouses, and loved ones. Most of that behavior suggests an extraordinary effort to cope that is, from our perspective, moving and heroic. The pathology model would view that behavior in no specific way, choosing instead to focus on feelings of depression and the difficulty in making emotional progress. The strengths perspective would wonder what prompts the person to do as well as he or she does. It would ask what internal and external mechanisms propel the person to get on with life even if the struggle is often more than he or she can take.

I believe that as the client begins to appreciate what is good, functional, and positive about him- or herself, the mechanisms used to achieve success in one area of life will transfer over to those areas of life that are more problematic. It seems to me, then, that the essence of the strengths perspective is the belief that focusing on what is good about the client will provide more real gain than focusing on what is bad. And while this is more easily said than done, this book is about helping people get well who are in serious social and emotional difficulty. By getting well, I mean living with an absence of internal emotional pain and providing the society we live in with the benefits of these people’s talents and abilities. A practice approach that fails to encourage socially responsible behavior fails, in my view, to truly help people.

This book is written for the brave and resolute among us who fight the daily battle of survival against all odds, and who often win. But it is particularly written for my daughter Amy and for my sister Gladys, who are the best example I know of people who use the strengths perspective every day of their lives—and who are wise, caring, and loving people as a result.

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